Manual Desiring revolution: second-wave feminism and the rewriting of American sexual thought, 1920 to 1982

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As cultural critic Laura Kipnis reminds us, marriage, whether straight or gay, is one of the most obvious factors by which the populace defines itself. If marriage remains as an institution which cleaves the populace according to strict designations of economics, desire, and identity, studying the history of adultery allows for a reconceptualization of the process by which definitions and assumptions about marriage are created.

This reminder is all the more salient in the contemporary pro-marriage climate, which frequently papers over historic critiques of the institution. While the literary value of feminist fiction was a subject of much debate during the period of these novels production, more recent scholarship has tended, thanks to advent of cultural studies models, to think more about the ideology of such texts than their craftsmanship.

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Because they typically adopt the form of a confessional, diary, journal, or even stream-of-consciousness narrative, the organization of these novels emphasizes the concept of female voice. Some adultery novels even posit the creation of the novel itself as a renegade or secretive endeavor, a practice that aligns the writing process with an act of symbolic adultery. The plethora of works in this vein suggests that adultery became a placeholder for a much larger betrayal, namely that through the act of writing, female protagonists were defying both male authorities and literary gatekeepers.

Sketching disappointing unions, thanks especially to controlling or conversely, absent, husbands, many of the novels depict men who frame sexual acts as demands rather than opportunities for intimacy. Even when it is not rendered in such stark terms, however, marital sex generally comes under scrutiny in the adultery novel. During the sexual encounter, he has a habit of wrapping his hands around her neck and pressing down on her collarbone, to the point where she feels as if she is suffocating.

Similarly, though she has no interest in status climbing, thanks to the demands of her egomaniacal husband, Tina Balser must become a party planner, socialite, and consumer of luxury goods. A number of the female protagonists also find extramarital sex disappointing, boring, or infrequent.

In this respect, it makes sense that so few of these affairs lead to lasting relationships. Protagonists rarely, however, return to a marriage that is completely the same. Whereas Jonathan confesses his affair, Tina does not. The fact of a domestic reconciliation does not, however, obviate the potential of this familiar plotline to demystify marriage. Instead, unfaithful wives frequently return demanding new partnerships, unions which reflect the renegotiated understandings that the affair has helped to engender. In this way, feminist fiction forges a symbolic link between the affair and the consciousness-raising process, one that takes place regardless of whether extramarital affairs are loving—or lasting.

Most feminist fiction, in contrast, depicted the experiences of the college-educated upper class. Like many other female protagonists in the genre, Ella awakens to the circumstances of her life through a process of introspection and education, becomes gradually disillusioned with her marriage and family life, embarks on an affair, visits a psychotherapist, and decides to leave her marriage and abort an unwanted child.

Dan then asks Ella whether every middle class woman with a loving husband and nice children is secure and happy, ostensibly to encourage her to reevaluate her own investment in the notion that being married necessarily guarantees women a fulfilling life. However, it remains debatable whether Dan models this approach in order to encourage Ella to think critically about the novels in question, to help her engage in a process of self-reflection, or merely to seduce her.

Dan also attacks this conviction, asking her why, if she is so committed to motherhood, she does not have multiple offspring. As she expresses, she was shocked that more mothers do not talk about the trauma they experienced while giving birth, and characterizes her own experience as feeling like she was literally being torn apart.

Ella describes as well her suspicion that having a child pleased her husband Joe because it ensured her dependency on him When Lulu, her daughter, got a bit older, she remembers:. Of course, all these thoughts were mixed with others, with great rushes of love for my baby. The likeness between their names, Ella and Emma, is perhaps not wholly a coincidence. Reflecting, for example, on an occasional fantasy she has in which her house burns down with her husband and daughter inside, Ella reluctantly admits to her journal that in the wake of such a tragedy, in addition to feelings of overwhelming sadness, she also detects something resembling relief.

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Even so, she eventually complies with his request, which suggests that Joe successfully and even intentionally uses the guilt she feels over her love affair with books to his advantage. In more general terms, adultery and reading both take wives away from marital responsibilities, and, in their place, offer women opportunity to imagine new lives and alternate realities.

Both processes catalyze a critical consciousness than can lead to real life change, though this process can and often does begin from a state of disquietude. Hers is, however, a pedagogically useful misreading, and even a strategic one, since Ella appropriates Anna Karenina in a way that furthers her critical understandings. That Ella conflates her own boredom and unhappiness with that of these fictional heroines suggests that such identifications lead to important, if painful, epistemological gains. According to Kate Millet and Judith Fetterly, whose respective polemics in many ways foundationalized the practice of feminist literary criticism, the reading of male literature can be linked with the creation of an explicitly feminist consciousness, if readers become cognizant of the fact that such portrayals are informed by patriarchal attitudes.

Of male authors like Tolstoy and Flaubert, Ella tells Dan:. They liked their heroines, but being men they were prejudiced about what a woman ought to be. Soft and weak and all. So they had to destroy them. She attributes the shortcomings of such texts to a failure of authorial imagination, wherein these authors could not, as she sees it, envision the creation of a heroine who did not comply with feminine norms. Although her analysis stalls in part thanks to the idea that these authors are personally rather than ideologically responsible for their narrative choices, she offers a trenchant assessment of the conditions of production surrounding a male-dominated literary marketplace, a realm in which female transgression must be denounced.

She queries:. Only if he assumes that his readers are just observers, outside the trap—like men reading about poor Anna Karenina, shaking their heads and pitying her but not really seeing themselves in her place. If she sees herself in the book, and the author shows her being destroyed one way, then rebelling only to be destroyed another way…what does that do to the reader? I think it destroys the reader in a third way—It teaches despair.

Jane F. Gerhard

Ella recognizes that male authors assume a male readership who might pity an adulteress, but who would not identify with her, and so shifts the terms of this debate to focus on the presumably unintended female reader. Ella, however, fights against the immasculation that feminist critics have often found latent within the reading project. Rather, thanks to her insistence upon her own identification with Anna, Ella gives voice to the despair that, as she feels, sets in when this relationship is attempted.

Thank the Goddess, I opted for none of these. She would go home—chastened, changed, empowered, and redeemed by her adventure—and life would go on. All seem to realize that because female readers must deal with the consequences of such portrayals, writers can be held accountable for the representations they produce. In turn, these authors interrogate the assumptions that lie behind the convention of dooming the adulteress and offer confirmation that a revisiting and perhaps even a rewriting of such texts can help readers and feminists to move beyond the despair that Ella locates as the end point of her readerly practices.

Specifically, they answer a demand for adultery texts written for readers like Ella, women who want to make a go of rebellion but who do not wish to call down upon themselves the sorts of tragedies all too common in nineteenth-century literature.


Such a thought revolution reveals the true modus operandi of the adultery novel, wherein the affair is predominantly a means to the desired end of having women reassess their public and private commitments. The more Ella begins to desire him sexually, the less able she is to argue with him or develop her own ideas. Ella again filters her understanding of her affair through the tale of Emma Bovary. Much like her marriage, gender and sexual inequity structure her extramarital relation, and she becomes the one responsible for birth control so that sex may be made pleasurable and easy for Dan.

As well, Ella and Dan have sexual relations only twice, and both times Dan proves to be a selfish and uncaring lover. The affair fizzles after these lackluster encounters, and Ella discovers shortly thereafter that Dan is widely known as a serial adulterer with a habit of sleeping with his older female students. On the other hand, the novel scripts such political awakenings as organic for Ella—she participates in a peace rally after reading protest literature such asThe Autobiography of Malcolm X, and her penultimate action in the novel is to spend her Christmas vacation refusing the commercialization of the holiday by helping a friend mail gifts and cards to prisoners.

Likewise, though Bryant employs the adultery narrative, a script that has clearly been used before, she innovatively utilizes it to offer a rebuke to nineteenth century literary precedents, and in turn to participate in debates central to the paradigm of feminist literary critique. In this schema, adultery becomes more than a means for creating an ideological space for voicing the conditions and contradictions of gender inequity, but rather is rearticulated from a political perspective, whereby it aligns with real life issues facing twentieth-century audiences.

Yet, her activist friend tells Ella that thanks to a recent ruling by a county judge, the hospitals in the Bay Area are, for the time being, performing abortions on demand. The Roe vs. Adultery paves way for the recognition that though the many celebratory aspects of marriage garner more publicity than does its status as disciplinary regime, the institution does still function to regulate behaviors and desires in such a way that those who fail to adhere to these strictures face censure and disapprobation.

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The literary representation of adultery as a narrative form in turn offers a challenge to the regimes of compulsory couplehood, and usefully gives shape to the idea that other selves and other lives may be possible, if one is willing to examine a controversial issue in nonjudgmental ways. Adultery literature remains a useful tool for formulating such visions, as well as for present and future feminist critique for it reminds us that female protagonists have long used adultery to question the role of an institution meant to regulate both their economic and emotional lives.

While adultery is no neater in formulation in literature than it is in life, its appearance in feminist fiction at least recognizes the ways that women can image alternatives to lives that seem already highly prescribed. While her domestic disillusions lack a neatly scripted wrap-up, her utterance nevertheless provides evidence that a strong sense of feeling can provide new openings. The author wishes to thank Jane Gallop and Gregory Jay for the countless hours they spent aiding me in a study of adulterous women, Alan Billing for his keen eye and encouragement, and the anonymous readers for their valuable feedback.

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Search Enter the terms you wish to search for. Other ways to search: Events Calendar Campus Map. As Whelehan contends: Fiction, more freely than political writings, can take opposing sides and study conflicted opinions and ambiguity, and is therefore more likely to chime with the uncertainties of women attracted to feminism but confused by the mess of their personal lives. Adultery Ad Nauseam?

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Works Cited Berggren, Anne G. Patrocinio P. Schweickart and Elizabeth Flynn. New York: Modern Language Association, Bryant, Dorothy. New York: Feminist Press, Coontz, Stephanie. New York: Viking, Content Types A limited number of items are shown. Click to view More Electronic books. Notes Includes bibliographical references pages [] and index. Contents Modern women and modern marriage: reinventing female heterosexuality -- Between Freudianism and feminism: sexology's postwar challenge -- Politicizing pleasure: Radical feminist sexual theory, -- Desires and their discontents: feminist fiction of the s -- Cultural feminism: reminagining sexual freedom, -- Negotiating legacies in the feminist sex wars, Information from the Web Learn more about where we find additional information on the web.

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